Monday, June 11, 2007

Reluctant Estonia to mark Holocaust Day

This is of special interest to me. My grandfather came to this country from Estonia 97 years ago. He was always reluctant to talk about his roots. His parents fled to Estonia from other places in Eastern Europe. They did not feel welcome in that nation, and, thankfully, emigrated to the U.S.

About ten years ago, in the course of my work, I met a woman with an unusual last name with a series of vowels I had never seen before. I happened to ask what language it was and she said it was Estonian. I mentioned that my grandfather had come from Estonia and she asked what the family's name was. When I told her, she said "that doesn't sound Estonian," so I told her she was right -- the name is Jewish. Her response was chilling. Her smile changed to a penetrating glare and she said "ve vere wery accommodating to our Jews."

I didn't point out to her that virtually all Estonian Jews were killed in the Holocaust (see below). I asked "were you there during the war?" She said yes, and went on to describe how she and her husband came to leave Estonia, fleeing with the retreating Nazi troops. At that point I decided to end our friendly conversation and return to work.

from -- Estonia to mark Holocaust Day,
but Jewish issue still controversial, by Adam Ellick
TALLINN, Estonia, Aug. 11 (JTA) — After years of mounting pressure from Western governments, the Estonian Cabinet has designated Jan. 27 as Holocaust Day.

However, the government did not make public observance compulsory — so it’s unclear how widespread observance will be — and the Ministry of Education has not yet announced specific educational programs.

The date falls on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.

The day will commemorate both the Holocaust and other 20th-century acts of genocide, including the mass deportation of Estonians by Soviets to Siberia.

The move comes two years after Council of Europe member countries signed a declaration to devote one day of every school year to the Holocaust. Numerous other European countries also chose Jan. 27.

Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas denied that outside pressure influenced the decision to institute a Holocaust Day. Estonia, which aspires to join the NATO defense alliance this November and the European Union in 2004, has been criticized over the past year by Western leaders who say the tiny Baltic nation has yet to confront its Holocaust history honestly.

In May, U.S. Ambassador Joseph DeThomas angered Estonians when he published an editorial in a local newspaper reproaching Estonians for keeping silent about war crimes committed during the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation, and for their passiveness in investigating Estonian collaboration.

“Proclaiming Holocaust Day means acknowledging objective reality at the time when Estonia is knocking on the door of NATO and E.U.,” an Estonian newspaper editorialized this week. “It seems that the Estonian government has changed its stance overnight, since” a previous minister of education “stated that the Holocaust topic has been adequately covered in school textbooks.”

The announcement has not gone down smoothly with Estonians, many of whom, after decades of Soviet propaganda, have only a faint understanding of the crimes committed in their homeland.

An Internet poll on the subject tallied 390 respondents, of whom 93 percent were against the national commemoration.

Estonia’s prewar Jewish population was about 6,000. During the German occupation, about 5,000 Estonian Jews fled to Russia.

Of the 1,000 who remained, only seven survived. The Germans also killed 7,000 other people, including 6,000 ethnic Estonians.

Though only 3,000 Jews live in Estonia today, Holocaust-related issues have emerged as a fierce source of debate in the past month. In late July, the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center provided the Estonian Security Police Board with the names of 16 Estonians it claimed helped murder Jews in Belarus in August 1942.

The Police Board denied any Estonian participation and hastily closed its investigation — despite a report from an independent Estonian war crimes commission that confirmed the participation.

The U.S. Embassy in Tallinn expressed its concern about the Police Board’s decision to the Estonian government.

Passions have been high since early July, when the Wiesenthal Center announced a program offering $10,000 rewards for information leading to the conviction and prosecution of Nazi war criminals. The program sparked anti-Semitic news items and public outrage, including the offer from one Estonian man of $20,000 for information about Jewish KGB agents who deported ethnic Estonians during Soviet rule.

Last week in Parnu, Estonia’s third largest city, the City Council prevented a private group from establishing a monument praising Estonians who served in the Nazi SS.


Estonia in World Media (Rus) said...

Different opinions exist in the Jewish press about Estonia.

Research done by Jewish history Ph D Anton Weiss-Wendt in book "Murder Without Hatred: Estonians, the Holocaust, and the Problem of Collaboration" in which he claims, basing his opinion on reports from nazist police informants that general mood of the war-time Estonians were insupportive of nazi antisemitic propaganda. in the independent Estonia (pre-War), says the book the Jews were respected and managed to obtain special previleged status of "Cultural autonomy". Though the Jews were not successful in obtaining government positions (as, one could guess, were other minorities). Review of this monography on French Jewish news portal:

Situation of today could be different, considering historical events - including strong USSR condemnation of Israel throughout Soviet period - but in 2005 Kazav, Israel's president, declared at press conference in Tallinn that antisemitism in Estonia has generally been defeated:

In Russian:
and Estonian:

Positive opinion on Estonia, though not in such strong words were expressed Peres in Tallinn in May

No doubt critics exist. But, reluctant or not, commemorating the Jew victims as part of official state ideology, no matter how popular, is not something that you can expect to find common throught the World.

Adam Holland said...

Excuse me? "(T)he Jew victims"? The word is Jewish.

While you accurately present Anton Weiss-Wendt's argument that there was no widespread support for the Holocaust in Estonia, Weiss-Wendt in fact supports other research to the effect that an unusually high percentage of murders of Jews and Gypsies in Estonia were committed not by Germans, but by the Estonian Omakaitse, which was composed entirely of volunteers. Read this:
and this:

With respect to laws mandating commemoration, I checked out the Yad Vashem website to research this, but publish what I found with the proviso that it was difficult to use and I am not 100% sure I read it correctly. I believe that 25 European nations now have laws establishing Holocaust commemoration days, as do Israel, the U.S., and Argentina. Many other nations and provinces throughout the world have official commemoration days that are not mandated by statutes. Others commemorate the Holocaust by sending representatives to participate in Yom HaShoah observances by the local Jewish community. If anyone reading this has more precise information, please post it or forward it to my attention.

What's interesting to me about the Estonian case is that it is of two minds. While there is a desire on the part of some to participate in the process of "truth and reconciliation" which this sort of commemoration represents, there appears to be a lack of willingness on the part of others to own Estonia's culpability. This is not surprising. In the areas where the Germans fought the USSR, places where collaborators tended to be especially brutal to Jews, there have been four levels (with some overlap) of self-serving historical revisionism: 1) Holocaust justification (i.e. overt belief in Nazism); 2) Holocaust denial (belief that nothing unusual happened); 3) shifting blame exclusively to German occupiers; and 4) rationalizing the Holocaust by blaming Jews for crimes committed by the USSR and communist regimes.

All that having been said, I am pleased to hear from you that anti-Semitism is on the decline in Estonia. Are you writing from Estonia?

Adam Holland said...

It seems that some Estonians have such fond memories of the Nazis that they still erect monuments to them. Check out this BBC story about Estonia erecting a monument to the local SS unit:

The monument appears to have been toppled about 5 weeks ago.:

Also check out this:

Estonia in World Media (Rus) said...

Sorry for gram. errors. Not my favorite foreign language, English.

Monument you mentioned is negative thing, but not as bad as it looks. It is said in the news article that it was intended to the Estonian SS. Estonian SS unit was combat unit, waffen SS. The issue of whether Waffen SS is as bad as it sounds is hotly debated, says Wikipedia, quoting some serious legal ssources.

The mentioned monument was erected by private individuals, unknown to general public. Once the public learned about the stone, it was eliminated, altered (not to look nazi) and returned to private individuals without public re-erecting. If it had not looked nazi, it could even been found Ok. Otherwise, it could incourage freaks like extremists, neo-nazists and skinheads. Here you can see pictures of monuments to the German combat units, including waffen SS, standing in several Western European countries (there are in fact more such monuments). I however don't know about and don't believe any monument to "normal" SS exists.

I am from Estonia. My war time grandparent was involved in the Soviet Estonian Rifle Corps (Laskurkorpus), who fought against Germans.

Anonymous said...

Adam Holland and his fantazi !


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